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Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem decries attack on Church of Gethsemane

Following an attack on Sunday by two Israeli radicals in the church where the Tomb of the Virgin Mary lies, Patriarch Theophilus III of Jerusalem urges for a better protection of Christians in the Holy Land and their holy places.

By Lisa Zengarini

As Israeli-Palestinian tensions remain high, only a few days ahead of new talks between officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan and the US in Sharm-el Sheikh, and amid ongoing unrest over PM Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reform, Jerusalem saw yet another episode of violence against Christians during the past weekend.

A bishop and two priests attacked

On Sunday, 19 March, two radical Israeli men reportedly entered the Church of Gethsemane in East Jerusalem, where the Tomb of the Virgin Mary lies, and physically attacked a bishop and two priests who were taking part in a religious service, while attempting to deface items in the church. The two men were caught and held by the people present.

The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, represented by Patriarch Theophilus III, along with the Holy Synod and the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulcher, strongly condemned the incident saying that it “cannot be justified under any circumstances”.

The statement released on Sunday, remarked  that attacks “targeting churches, cemeteries, and Christian properties, in addition to physical and verbal abuse against Christian clergy, have become almost a daily occurrence that evidently increases in intensity during Christian festivities”. 

Christian and Muslim holy places under attack 

Both Christian and Muslim holy places have come under attack many times recently. Christian targets struck in the past years include the Basilica of Nazareth and Catholic and Greek-Orthodox buildings. One of the latest incidents occurred on New Year’s Day when two men toppled tombstones and smashed crosses in an Anglican cemetery.

According to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, “this dismal situation hasn’t drawn any appropriate reaction, locally or internationally, despite appeals, requests, and protests made by the Churches of the Holy Land. It is painfully clear now that the authentic Christian presence in the Holy Land is in great danger”, the statement lamented.

Protection for Christians urgently needed

The Patriarchate therefore once again calls upon the international community to intervene immediately to provide security and protection to Christians in Jerusalem and their holy places and  “demands that the necessary legal measures be taken against all those involved in terrorist crimes against any holy site.”

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Churches’ concerns over deterioration of political situation in the Holy Land

Over the past months, Christian leaders in the Holy Land have repeatedly warned that their communities are under threat of being driven from the region by extremist Israeli radical groups.

On December 16, 2022, the Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land (ACOHL), voiced their concerns over the “gradual deterioration of the general social and political” situation in the Holy Land, also pointing to “divisive statements” made by some political leaders against “the Arab or otherwise non-Jewish community” which, they said, “are contrary to the spirit of peaceful and constructive coexistence among the various communities that make up our society”.

More recently, in the face of the latest resurgence of violence between Israeli forces and Palestinians, the Patriarchs and Heads of the Churches in Jerusalem have reiterated their call for de-escalation and a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since the beginning of the year, more than 80 Palestinians – militants and civilians – have been killed by Israeli forces, and, on the Israeli side, 13 people lost their lives in deadly Palestinian attacks.

The latest incident occurred last week, when  Israeli forces reportedly shot dead four Palestinians during a raid in the city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank and another 20 Palestinians were wounded by gunfire.

A new round of talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials with the participation of Egypt, Jordan and the United States is expected to take place at the end of March in Sharm-el Sheik, Egypt, following a meeting in Aqaba, Jordan, in late February, to defuse tensions that risk  exploding during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which this year will begin on 22 March.

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